Q&A: Englobe's Edwards Talks Gaming's 'Geocultural Risks'
Gaming has always been a global business, but as the industry matures and games become more complex, there is more and more risk in localizing titles without taking into account cultural differences.
Englobe is a consultancy that specializes in examining these "geocultural risks", and Gamasutra talked to founder Tom Edwards about his history in the industry, including a discussion of his work with Microsoft Game Studios titles such as Halo 2 and Kakuto Chojin.
Could you introduce yourself?
My name is Tom Edwards and I think I’m something of a unique hybrid of an academic geographer and cartographer by training; global program manager and educator by experience; and a corporate geocultural advisor by choice -- coexisting with a passion for technology and games.
Sometimes I like to tell people that I’m essentially a gamer who became a geographer and geocultural consultant, because games have been a part of my life for the better part of it (I’m old enough to have played Pong and Space Wars when they first showed up).
How did you become “a geographer and geocultural consultant”?
I went into college in aerospace engineering because I thought it would be cool to go into space someday. Well, I’m far too right-brained for calculus so I switched majors to industrial design at Cal State Long Beach -- because I had learned that Joe Johnston and some other Lucasfilm storyboard artists had gone there. I did that for 2 years with my goal of working for Lucasfilm, but I quickly tired of being forced to draw things I didn’t want -- like pencil sharpeners, tables and cars.
During this time, I had planned to minor in geography because it’s always been a strong interest for me, but one day I decided to change majors (again) and it proved to be a great fit. Cartography in particular was a great combination of my creative side but also an interest in representation of real-world issues. I went on to do my master’s thesis on using virtual worlds technology for geographic information, and have finished most of the requirements for my PhD (except the dissertation!)
I’m very much a sci-fi geek -- enthralled by the old Twilight Zone and Outer Limits, then original Star Trek, old Harryhausen movies, 2001 and I was 12 years old when Star Wars released so I was branded for life. I ran a sort-of Star Wars-related role-playing game for several friends for about 10 years and that was great fun while it lasted -- and yes I do have my own Jedi costume. So I try and balance my interests in the real world with my interests in all things imaginative.
I am very passionate about geographic literacy (or the lack thereof) in the US and beyond, so I’m involved in efforts to improve geographic understanding (including the use of games!)
How did you become Microsoft's "Senior Geopolitical Strategist"?
I started my Microsoft career when I was in my first year of doctoral work at the University of Washington in 1992. Our geography department got a call for a cartographer and two of us grad students applied -- myself and Whit Alexander, who would later go on to co-create Cranium. Whit got the job but then hired me to help with the workload, and thus I worked as a cartographer on Encarta Encyclopedia and Encarta World Atlas for about three and a half years.
When I got my headcount position, it was designated as “Geopolitical Specialist”, with my job being to keep all the mapping products current and “geopolitically-correct” from country to country. As I performed this work, people from across the company started asking me all kinds of questions about flags, boundaries, cultural faux pas, and it became clear that a broader resource for these types of questions was needed. So I created a proposal for a small team, shopped it around to various VPs, and finally gained approval.
As a result in 1998 I created the “Geopolitical Strategy” team at Microsoft with the mission of centralizing corporate policy on sensitive geopolitical and cultural issues -- to ensure consistent handling across the very wide range of products and locales. We created guidelines, ran classes, performed content reviews, and created various tools to enable product teams to effectively deal with this more qualitative aspect of content. With only three people including myself, it was a daunting task but very rewarding.
Can you talk about your work with Microsoft Game Studios?
I started my work with games at Microsoft with consulting on Flight Simulator -- long before the Xbox or Microsoft Game Studios existed. When MGS was created I got involved with the key people in the production line, particularly the user experience and editorial folks, and we initially set up some ad hoc content reviews to ensure things were being checked before heading out the door.
This evolved into a more formal “geopolitical quality review” process in which we took a very proactive approach, which was somewhat unprecedented in the industry, to geopolitical risks -- starting with the earliest design concepts.
The process wasn’t a “political correctness” review or a form of internal censorship -- it was really geared at maximizing the number of global players who could enjoy the games without being distracted by political and/or cultural issues. I worked very closely with a wide range of people, from designers, writers and producers to the marketing and legal people.
From roughly 1995 to 2005, I personally performed the geopolitical content review for nearly every 1st party Microsoft game for PC and Xbox, as well as reviews on many 2nd party and some 3rd party titles.
What kinds of issues cropped up over that time?
A lot of people know the story of Kakuto Chojin: in this hand-to-hand fighting game, the developers mistakenly included audio which contained chanted verses from the Islamic Qur’an. While the issue was immediately fixed, there were packaged copies of the game which were released and they inadvertently ended up in unintended locales where such a thing would be very sensitive -- such as Saudi Arabia.
The issue became headline news in some Muslim countries and eventually the heat against the title became so significant that it had to be globally recalled. So in the end, that one audio file eliminated all the great development effort.
During the geocultural review of Halo 2’s content, the original name for the Arbiter character -- Dervish -- was identified as a potential problem. Out of context, the name ‘Dervish’ wasn’t too sensitive as it’s a title from the Sufi sect of Islam. However, within the game’s context this Islamic-related name of ‘Dervish’ set up a potentially problematic allegory related to Halo 2’s plot -- the U.S.-like forces (Master Chief/Sarge) versus Islam (the religious Covenant, which already had a “Prophet of Truth” which is one synonym for Mohammed).
Mind you, this was not too long after 9/11 so the sensitivity to such issues remained high. In the end, the character name was changed to ‘Arbiter’ -- which in my opinion worked much better for the character’s role in the narrative.
How did you come to start Englobe?
After 13 plus years at Microsoft, I felt that my mission to “institutionalize” the accountability for geopolitical issues had been mostly achieved. While I really loved my job, I knew it was time for new challenges and I felt that I had a solid skill set that I could apply to other companies and types of products. So I left Microsoft in March 2005.
Not being a “real” business person, it’s been a challenge to get a viable company off the ground but I have felt invigorated by the challenge and it’s been a great experience expanding my reach to a wide range of other companies. Just like I did within Microsoft, I find I still have to do quite a bit of educating about what the whole “geocultural” thing means, but if I get a chance to explain it to potential clients/companies, they usually get it right away -- it’s not rocket science, it’s about doing good business in a global environment.
So what is it that Englobe does exactly?
We’re a niche consultancy that focuses on the geocultural dimension of content. This effort is centered around my 16+ years of experience in dealing with a very wide range of content-related issues across many locales. At its core, Englobe helps companies avoid making serious geopolitical and cultural faux pas and errors that can yield local customer backlash -- or worse -- a product ban by a local government.
The core of Englobe’s business is performing "Geocultural Quality Review", which is my process of examining a piece or body of content for potentially sensitive issues. It’s useful to think of geocultural review as inoculation and insurance. The “inoculation” step is about introducing preventative measures into the game development lifecycle to prevent known issues.
This is not about being “PC” with content, it’s simply about maximizing the global viability of the content, and the “insurance” step is about performing due diligence within fiscal reason to develop content with a defensible intent. If an issue does result, the rationale behind decision-making will already be documented.
So how much importance do geocultural issues have in the world of games?
The geocultural dimension has a huge impact on games, but it’s usually perceived as a localization problem. The truth is that most game localization usually does not account for the geocultural aspects of content, such as how the content will be perceived from a local political, cultural or religious viewpoint.
Ratings boards simply do not review games for this type of content -- they can’t tell you if a game is going to be a political or cultural problem in a certain locale as they’re focused on age-appropriateness rather than locale-appropriateness (there is a connection there, but age remains the key factor in their reviews).
One recent example would be the use of the Manchester Cathedral in the game Resistance: Fall of Man. The game developers inserted a beautiful re-creation of the cathedral in the game -- which on the surface isn’t so bad (although some buildings are sensitive and/or actually have copyright protection). But the violent action of the game actually took place within the cathedral and the Church of England was not pleased with their sacred landmark being used in this way.
Another good example is the game Hearts of Iron, which was banned in China because Tibet and Taiwan were not shown as Chinese territory. The territorial divisions made perfect sense for game play -- ala the board game Risk -- but China’s government was unwilling to accept the historical context of the game’s content.
Yet another example is how Ghost Recon 2 was banned in Korea because the story featured a rogue North Korean general who was trying to consolidate power. The Korean Media Rating Board (KMRB) considered the content to be too politically sensitive and they banned the game because in Korea, any depiction of North and South Korea at war, or any portrayal of North Korea as a villain is considered to be very sensitive.
Very recently, there was the issue of apparent lesbian love scenes in Mass Effect which was overplayed by certain media outlets, but it was enough to prompt Singapore to temporarily ban the game.
The bottom line is that a game’s development and design can be perfect, the localization done very well, the marketing executed well and so on -- but all it takes is just one geocultural issue to potentially derail a game title in a particular market (or more). So I view a geocultural content review as a critical part of game design because we have to realize that there is a global audience -- even when you don’t intend your title to go to certain markets.
This doesn’t mean sterilizing the game content to be suitable for everyone, but it does mean making good, proactive choices in a surgical manner so that perhaps that one or two content items in the game can be tweaked in order to maximize the game titles global reach, and therefore revenue.
The key is that game companies need to realize the importance of this content aspect and then plan for it in their development cycle. In my experience, typically at least 75% of potential issues can be avoided if a geocultural review is performed very early - such as on the initial design and overall back story and characters. It’s much cheaper to course correct early on than late in the dev cycle.